Real Estate

Miami Beach and Developer Strike Deal, Paving Way for Controversial Church Project

The battle over the future of an historic Miami Beach church took another turn yesterday morning when city attorneys and developers struck a tentative agreement. If approved by commissioners, the deal would give TriStar Capital the green light to transform Miami Beach Community Church's century-old courtyard into a clothing store.

The project has become a rallying point for preservationists worried that Lincoln Road is becoming little more than a shopping mall. They objected to yesterday's hearing, arguing it "froze out" the public.

The proceedings have also divided the church. One congregation member who spoke at the hearing went so far as to call the process "corrupt," while others rejoiced at the agreement.

See also: Miami Beach Community Church Controversy: Preservationists Win Battle Over Secret Donation

The controversy dates back to December 2013, when New Times broke news that the Miami Beach Community Church was considering leasing its century-old courtyard to developer TriStar Capital for $100 million.

Church leaders called the deal "a miracle from God" and claimed they needed the money to save the ailing institution. Some congregation members were outraged, however.

"It's typical Miami Beach politics," said one, speaking to New Times on the condition of anonymity. "They've given us no information, no plan, no nothing... It's all very, very hinky."

That hunch turned out to have some truth to it. New Times later revealed developers had given a $500,000 donation to the church the day before its members approved the development deal.

The day after our article about the donation was published, the city's Historical Preservation Board (HPB) nonetheless approved the project.

On October 31, however, a quasi-judicial city official ruled that the city's HPB had erred in approving the plan. Special Master Warren Bittner ruled that the HPB had made several mistakes, including a "fundamental error" by not considering the $500,000 donation during its August 12 hearing.

The special master's decision threw the entire project up in the air. If the HPB were to reconsider the case and find TriStar had broken the rules by not declaring the $500,000 donation, the project would be put on hold for at least a year.

Instead, TriStar and MBCC used a little-known state statute to file what is called a FLUEDRA (Florida Land Use and Environmental Dispute Resolution Act) claim against the city, arguing that the special master's decision had infringed upon its property rights.

Former Miami-Dade County Attorney Murray Greenberg moderated the hearing yesterday morning.

TriStar attorney John Shubin opened discussions by arguing that the special master had overstepped his authority. Shubin said that objections over the $500,000 donation should have been made earlier in the process (although the donation was not then public knowledge) and that it was too late to expect TriStar to start over.

Shubin then suggested that Miami Beach's special master system itself was unconstitutional and threatened to challenge it in court if the city didn't get out of TriStar's way.

Deputy City Attorney Eve Boutsis defended the special master system and angrily rejected TriStar's suggestion that the city had discriminated against the church.

But Boutsis agreed with TriStar that, in this case, Bittner had been too bold.

"We do believe that the special master did exceed his authority," she said.

Greenberg then heard testimony from three critics of the development.

Local activist Frank Del Vecchio argued that the latest hearing was bogus. "This is not a case for Florida Land Use remediation," he said. Instead, he argued that the case should be reheard by the HPB or settled in court.

Del Vecchio also slammed Shubin's aggressive tactics.

"In effect, he is threatening the city," Del Vecchio said. "He is saying, 'You are going to have to defend your special master system or go along with us.'"

Church member James Yonan accused the city of bias in favor of the project.

"This whole process is flawed and corrupt," he said. (Boutsis vigorously denied the claims.)

Finally, Greenberg heard from the Miami Design Preservation League, the group that had opposed the courtyard demolition.

"We contend that the current mediation process, under Florida Statute 70.51, was not intended for a case such as ours, as it does not involve a development order from the Historic Preservation Special Master nor an enforcement decree," Daniel Ciraldo said. "The current process has the effect of freezing out the real party petitioner, Miami Design Preservation League."

Greenberg said there was nothing he could do about the allegations of corruption.

"I'm not a judge," he said. "My role is to try to get an agreement between the parties, and it appears to me that we have an agreement."

Boutsis and Shubin agreed in principle to a deal that would see TriStar drop its legal complaints against the city (including an already-filed lawsuit) in return for the city overruling its own special master.

The deal must be approved by commissioners, however, something that could happen as soon as February 25.

But both Yonan and Ciraldo threatened to continue fighting the development plan.

Ciraldo said preservationists and the public had been cut out of the process by the strange FLUEDRA hearing.

"It is unprecedented what is being done," he said. "The City Attorney and others confirmed that the process they are using is flawed, poorly written, etc... We remain committed to seeing our day at HPB based on the Historic Preservation Special Master's objective findings. To use a process such as FLUEDRA freezes us out of the process entirely."

"If this process happens and the HP Special Master order is reversed, it sets a horrible precedent for the future," he said, "that any developer can go into mediation with the city in order to circumvent the standard processes enshrined in our code."

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.